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Lebanon's Government Resigns Amid Outrage Over Beirut Explosion

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Lebanon's prime minister, who took office amid accusations of misgovernment, now is quitting amid accusations of misgovernment. Hassan Diab says he will leave as soon as lawmakers pick his replacement. He lost his job after an explosion in Beirut. Officials apparently knew for years of a dangerous stockpile of chemicals, which finally blew up. NPR's Ruth Sherlock covers Lebanon, joins us today from the U.K. Hi, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hello.

INSKEEP: What's the prime minister saying as he promises to quit?

SHERLOCK: Well, he said he was resigning because he was heeding the people's demand for change. You know, this comes after days of massive protests in the ruined streets of Beirut. Some of the protesters themselves have seen their homes destroyed in the explosion. And despite the resignation, though, Diab's government is going to remain around for a while as a caretaker government as the parliament decides what to do next.

INSKEEP: OK. So he's quitting, but not quite yet quitting. How are people reacting?

SHERLOCK: Not well, Steve. There is enormous rage on the streets. You know, in the last few days, people have been chasing politicians down the street. A crowd threw water at the justice minister. And remember, this comes just as - you know, this explosion happened just as millions have been driven into poverty by an economic collapse largely blamed on corruption and the squandering of state funds by the political class. So this is seen as being just too little too late.

There were clashes last night after the announcement. And basically, this is because people think this might be window dressing. Lebanese people have been here before. As you said, you know, last year, the government - protests ousted the government, caused the cabinet to resign. But then political leaders took months to decide among themselves who would lead and installed a government that the Lebanese people didn't trust. So far, there is no talk of early elections.

INSKEEP: Wow. And when you say economic collapse, we should mention the economic collapse in Lebanon came before the pandemic. It's been a real problem for quite some time. And yet, the elites are still there even after all this upheaval. What makes them so entrenched?

SHERLOCK: Well, you know, the political class has ruled since after the end of the civil war in the 1990s. A system was set up that balanced power between the country's different warring sects - the Christians, the Sunnis, the Shias and so on. And it was a way to make peace. And it did kind of provide a way forward. But Nadim Houry, the executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, has worked on accountability issues for years. And he explains that this system essentially drove power to six main people, whom he calls oligarchs. And he says, these days, the structure is less about balancing sects than it is about dividing the spoils of the state between these people. Here he is.

NADIM HOURY: They happen to belong to different confessions. But they come together when it suits them. And they divide themselves never over real sectarian interests, but always over financial interests. When you realize that, when you realize you're dealing with a kleptocracy, when you're dealing with a mafia-like structure, the country makes sense.

SHERLOCK: So he says, you know, the mafia has essentially taken over and placed its people in all levels of government to steer funds to itself. And so people are really frustrated because, Steve, they want the removal of the whole political class - not just the government, but the parliament and the president and all these people who've controlled so much of the country for so many years and, you know, essentially driven it to ruin. They recognize that, you know, installing an independent government now and having elections, you know, could be - create a vacuum, which is dangerous. But they say that it's better than keeping this class, which has proven that it can't - this political class, which has proven that it can't bring about change.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ruth Sherlock. Thanks.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.